Shorthaul Flights: Full Service Indirect Vs. Low Cost Direct

Filed Under: Advice, Ultra Low Cost Carrier

Most major, full service airlines around the world operate a ‘hub and spoke’ route network model. This means that on most of their flights, you will be flying either to or from one of their hubs.

You might be lucky enough to have a direct (and ideally non-stop) flight, especially if you live near a hub, otherwise you may have to connect, at least once. Connecting can add significant time to your journey because the connection may not be in a straight ‘as the crow flies’ line, adding to the flight times, and the layover at the hub may be significant.

Delta: Hundreds of routes but most are to or from a hub

Low cost carriers have realised this and will either consider any airport they base a plane in overnight to be a ‘hub,’ or only operate non-stop routes with no option for passengers to connect. Ryanair boss Michael O’Learly once famously said ‘passengers will fly from nowhere to somewhere, or somewhere to nowhere but not nowhere to nowhere.’ So provided they can operate a non-stop flight from either a ‘real’ airport or to a ‘real’ airport, passengers don’t mind where they begin and end their journey.

Saving time and money with a direct flight

I’ve been interested by the business model of Allegiant, who take this to another level by only operating non-stop flights on obscure routes where no non-stop flights exist. This is a clever niche market to tap into. This is because it’s difficult to turn down the convenience and efficiency of a non-stop flight, regardless of the carrier vs. a time consuming and perhaps risky connection.

Some connection options will add significant time to your journey

The lure of the low cost

I fly short-haul every few weeks, primarily for weekends away. As I’ve written about before, low cost carriers are perfect for this purpose. The 48 hours I have for a weekend trip can quickly be reduced significantly if I need to add in a connection, and full service carriers in Europe with buy-on-board aren’t much different to low cost carriers in economy anyway.

I particularly like the opportunity to fly to obscure destinations that the full cost carriers might only fly to once per day (meaning potentially a frustrating overnight stop in a major hub city) or not fly to at all. A few years ago I flew non-stop from London to Timisoara, Romania for the weekend on a low cost carrier. While I wouldn’t really recommend the destination (ha!), I would never have had the chance to go there for a weekend had I stuck to full service carriers and awkward connections.

The thought of sacrificing your status benefits and the ability to earn miles with your preferred full service carrier to spend two hours flying non-stop on a low cost carrier might be unpalatable. However, if I’m in economy and it’s a choice between this or two flights of two hours or more to and from their full service hub, I think I’d rather than quicker option and even Ben has been giving it a try.

Delta’s hub at Salt Lake City Airport

When I choose to connect

I don’t always choose the low cost option. Where a full service carrier operates the same non-stop flight at a comparable time for a comparable cost, I will always choose the full service. This is regardless of whether I hold status with that airline or their partner, or not.

Last year I needed to fly from New York to Calgary, Canada. That is a fairly long way. The cheapest option was a non-stop flight on a WestJet 737. But for a 5.5 hour flight I just couldn’t stomach the thought. More than 5 hours is about my maximum preferred tolerance for a narrowbody flight.

So for this scenario, I ended up paying slightly more for a connecting flight on Air Canada via Toronto. Yes it wasn’t as efficient as a non-stop flight. But I was happy to have a short break in Toronto, stretch my legs, visit a Priority Pass lounge, and earn some miles in the process.

My connection was actually a logical straight line

When things go wrong

One of the biggest benefits of flying on a major full service carrier to or from their hub is if there is problem with your flight. If the flight is cancelled or you miss your connection, on a major airline on a popular route there’s a good chance there will be another flight leaving in a short amount of time that they will transfer you to.

I have had pretty good luck with the reliability of my low cost flights. The only cancelled flight on a smaller carrier I’ve ever had was on Virgin America, and they rebooked me on a (connecting) flight the next day and paid for my accommodation that evening.

If my Ryanair or easyJet flight was cancelled I would probably be wishing I had chosen a connecting flight on a full service carrier but touch wood that hasn’t happened yet. You can be sure if it does I’ll be writing about that experience here!

Bottom line

For longhaul travel I’m all about comfort and I’ll take nonsensical routings to maximize the experience and try out new airlines or products.

For quick trips where time and value is more important, I prefer a non-stop flight at a convenient time, regardless of the airline.

Do you sacrifice your status to take a non-stop flight on a low cost airline?

  1. Good post. Try living in Sioux Falls, SD. Places like this and Fargo, ND are the perfect targets for Allegiant as they are big enough cities to fill planes due to the convenience of them, particularly to leisure destinations. I’ve flown Allegiant many time to Vegas as it is just so damn easy even as a Delta Diamond who would usually sit up front when connecting through MSP. Not sure if I still will after the 60 minutes story…..

  2. Could you please stop using the terminology “direct flight” when you mean “nonstop flight?” You also made the same mistake in a prior post and it was pointed out by somebody in the comments section. Direct flights use the same flight number but often have intermediate stops and sometimes even involve a change of planes. What you are referring to in your article is a nonstop flight. If you google “direct vs nonstop flight” you will see a ton of explanations.

    I realize that 99% of people make this mistake, but OMAAT is so awesome and full of advanced aviation fans that you really should use the proper terminology, even if everybody knows what you mean.

  3. I flew from Orlando to Calgary, Canada on a Westjet 737 in July which was about 5.5 hours as well. It wasn’t that bad (at least comparing their economy to others) and I also saved a lot of money (my round trip ticket was only ~$200). I’d happily fly them again for that price on that route.

  4. Yup, living in South Bend, Indiana (only a 2 hour drive or indirect train ride from the Chicago Airprots) having Allegiant as an option when their schedule works is great. Did a Tucson weekend (met up with people who could pick me up in Mesa), flying SBN-AZO on Allegiant and then Southwest Tuscon-MDW with the bus ride home.

    We’re going down to Orlando next month for a cruise flying Delta SBN-DTW-MCO the night before (price was decent, plus Skyclub access in Detroit) then the evening after the cruise was one of the days we Allegiant flys up from Stanford up to SBN and booking that was a no brainer (less than $100 each with a carry-on). Trying to figure out if the Stanford Priority Pass Lounge can be accessed before domestic flights, info on it is vague?

  5. @subwaynut – The royal palm lounge is apart of Priority Pass. It’s timings are based on international departures though (but accessible by domestic passengers).

  6. James, you should differentiate ULCC(Ultra Low Cost Carrier) and LCC(Low Cost Carrier)
    Allegiant, Frontier, and Spirit are all ULCC, while Jetblue, Alaska, Sun Country, and the soon-to-be-gone Virgin are LCC.

    As an analyst from ULCC, and I can point out the differences between G4(Allegiant), F9(Frontier), and NK(Spirit).

    G4: non stop only, 2x to 7x weekly, only small cities to destinations, Most Destination
    NK: Connection allowed, daily, Bigger Cities to Bigger Cities, Least Destination
    F9: Connection allowed, other stuff in between G4 and NK.

  7. A good point. With full-service you’re paying some for the network of options if your flight is delayed or cancelled.

  8. The fact that LCCs lack interline agreements (for IROPS) is a huge negative, and one of the major reasons I try to avoid them when possible. I’ve read the horror stories about Frontier, Spirit, WN and Ryanair cancelling flights and stranding hundreds of passengers. No thanks. Of course, this is much less of an issue for busy routes than it is for obscure routes. This is also one of the major reasons why I refuse to fly WN. That and their absurdly horrible boarding/seating process.

    That said, I’m far more apt to use a LCC in Europe or Asia, as the distances are often short and frequencies are high. This mitigates the risk somewhat.

  9. Why would anyone subject themselves to flying Air Canada, and connecting in YYZ where there is a direct option on a superior carrier available?

    On top of that Air Canada has a <55% on time rating.

  10. Just like when traveling on points and purchasing the tickets last minute, one should always have some buffer planed when flying and ultra low cost, especially enroute to a cruise. A weekend getaway can be scrapped, but if you miss the ship, big heartache.

    On a side note, why wouldn’t you recommend Timisoara? It looks lovely on google.

  11. Flew Allegiant from MDT (Harrisburg, PA) to MYR (Myrtle Beach, NC) for the solar eclipse. It was perfect.

  12. @Bitzer that’s why we’re flying the main line Delta Air Lines down the night before the cruise, and then Alegiant back.

  13. I agree that ULCC’s can be risky for cancelled or delayed flights but don’t lump WN in with the ULCC’s. Southwest has pretty good frequency in most markets. Also to those who do not like the Southwest seating system I will argue that it is better than the big three here. If you do not have status with the legacy carriers or one of their branded credit cards you are boarding last regardless of fare paid. As most airlines allow parents with babies to board first at least on Southwest you can choose to NOT sit near the the crying baby. I have been on the legacy airlines and paid extra to sit in the isle seat of say row 6 only to have mom and crying baby right next to me. Plus I will argue that southwest can board a plane faster than the big 3 here in the US for domestic flights.

  14. Nice post, James. I sometimes debate this being at AA minuhub DCA.

    Being in DC, we get some weird direct flights due to politics/military. DCA-DAY 5x daily (because of Wright-Pat Air Force base, although I like to pretend it’s because of Congressman Roger Furlong from Veep), 3x daily to Albany (NY state politicians), etc.

    But places like Las Vegas may only have a single direct and it’s expensive. I’ve debated taking Frontier or Spirit but just can’t pull the trigger on missing out on either the status miles or the potential upgrade. Interesting thoughts, though.

  15. Wouldn’t take an LCC (nonstop or otherwise) unless there was no practical alternative. Often within the EU the only practical approach is an LCC. As for the USA, I can always get to where I need to go staying within the OneWorld family, namely AA and AS. I’m accustomed to long, tedious international routes, so these two to five hour regional flights, even with a connection are easy.

    I too, am annoyed by the use of the term “direct” to mean “nonstop” flight. I’ve flown on AA direct flight 754 from SAN to CDG, landing in PHL, changing terminals and planes. Not the same as “nonstop.”

  16. Good post. I have been weighing my options since I have been doing Knoxville, Tn (TYS) to St. Petersburg, Fl (PIE) non-stop for a while but I also require a few Asia trips a year and really hate missing out on the points I could be gaining for only a small change in price and extended travel time. I live the 1.5 hrs flight vs. 8 hrstravel time but again I don’t mind free booze and miles at a quick layover that gives me miles also. Kind of a hard decision in my situation since those miles could really be adding up for me right now.

  17. I was always one that claimed he would never dly a ULCC but I flew BUF-TPA on F9 yesterday despite my AA Elite status. F9’s flights were non-stop with perfect times and the tickets were only $59 ($34 fare + $25 checked bag). I could have paid $185 for a CLT connection on AA but I could not justify the price difference and less convenient schedule. F9 has no legroom but besides that it was fine – it pains me to admit this but I would fly F9 again.

  18. you wouldn’t fly 5.5 hours on a narrow body to Calgary? you realize most transcon flights in the USA are narrow body? and those are longer than 5.5 hours. WestJet is a great airline. I can’t believe you connected when there was a nonstop. That seems VERY primadonna.

  19. Common sense is the key to it. I’m not going to take a circuitous route adding hours to a journey just to save a few bucks/earn some credits.
    A forthcoming trip from Dublin to Athens gave a number of choices, only 1 direct/nonstop; Aegean for €45 but no points ( but with a bag as a *G). The others were via LHR, CDG, AMS, FCO etc, all more expensive, all much longer but with better points/credits/sectors/luggage. Naturally I chose Aegean and will forgo the status.
    On the other hand, SFO-NYC. Surprisingly hardly any direct/nonstop and the cheapest ones all depart very early/arrive very late. I prefer to pay a premium for direct/nonstop on such a long flight, rather than sit in SLC or somewhere for hours. So it’s Delta.

  20. @Jason I actually agree and hate spending too much time on small planes. These things just weren’t designed with tall people in mind, and it gets uncomfortable sitting that long with your legs in some awkward position. My day’s already hosed if I’m taking a flight longer than three hours, so why not break it up and have a chance to walk around and snag something to eat that was prepared in an actual kitchen?

  21. James. Please don’t feel the need to mention a post Lucky has done in all of your posts. Your writing is far more engaging than his and from what I’ve read from you so far – it’s certainly more informative and interesting. But seriously, there’s no need to keep referencing some random post lucky did years ago as if there’s some requirement to do so.

  22. I’m weighing my options for every trip I take. Being based in Stuttgart, Germany, I have the choice among all major european carriers as well as “no-thrills’ airlines like easyjet, Ryanair and Eurowings.
    I always prefer the non-stop compared to connecting via a hub, if the schedule fits to my travel there’s requirements.
    Don’t know about the US, but here in Europe EU regulation 261/2004 regulates compensation in case of delays or cancellations.

  23. @James

    I do not fly low so I would not know the sensation!..therefore risking to lose or sacrificing anything like my status nor my lounge or my privileges are so distant to me like SQ to Ryan Air…the best of being premium flyer for years as a top FF on major FFPs..I never had problems getting help, compensations, hotel overnight stays etc..that is why I regard being loyal goes both ways!

    To answer your question..I will stick to my loyal airlines inspite of connecting or sometimes delay or natural catastrophe etc..there is no better place to endure those hassles than in a great First class lounge or suites of a great hotel in often great cities in the world. La dolce vita!

  24. I think it is most important to study the flights you wish to take on FlightAware. Frontier/Spirit/Allegiant flights that are notoriously delayed or cancelled will most likely be delayed and cancelled. The risk is lower based on the previous history of on-time performance. I would just stay away from flights with a spotty history and you should be good regarding ULCCs.

  25. Yeah, my home city (YYC) was part of the feature of this story!
    Did you enjoy Calgary? What brought you here?

    BTW, I would fly AC too. AC operates a daily EWR-YYC flight. Used to be on an E90 – very comfortable 2×2 seating in Y. Now it is an A319; still quite decent. And there is J class available. But a connection in YYZ opens up LGA and gives you the chance to chose anytime of the day to travel instead of the one time a day flight.

    I wouldn’t have flown Westjet either…

  26. Brilliant article James!

    You mentioned that you use LCCs such as Ryanair to get away for a weekend. Could you do a post at some point explaining how to book such a trip, a weekend away on a budget?

  27. @ IAC – I could but it may be a bit too basic for most readers on this site. Try using Google Flights Explore (on a desktop), enter preferred dates (and times if desired) and budget and it will show you all destinations within your budget from your home airport.

    I use it all the time.

  28. @ Andrew – just didn’t really like it. A pretty grim city with very little to do (the walking tour lasted less than 90 minutes and the guide apologised at the end there wasn’t more to show us).
    I do like Eastern Europe (LOVED Bratislava, Tirana and Riga) but won’t be rushing back to Romania.

  29. “Being in DC, we get some weird direct flights due to politics/military. DCA-DAY 5x daily (because of Wright-Pat Air Force base, although I like to pretend it’s because of Congressman Roger Furlong from Veep), 3x daily to Albany (NY state politicians), etc.”

    No. Those routes are on AA. AA has a hub at DCA, with service to certain NE/SE/Midwestern medium size cities. If you had pointed out a route like DCA-MSN on DL then you’d have a better point.

  30. It really comes down to common sense and what is the most efficient way to reach your destination. I fly out of RNO, which I would characterize as a mid-size airport with decent service within the western US, but WN is the only LCC/ULCC with frequent service to more than one destination. As far as daily flights though, there’s only about a dozen or so destinations served by non-stops across all airlines, and if I’m going to have to take a connection anyway, why bother with a LCC.

    Recently, WN cancelled my SAN-RNO non-stop flight about 12h in advance, seemingly because the jet was needed on another route. At that point, it was a no-brainer to cancel and get a refund, then book on my preferred airline (DL).

  31. I am OW Emerald on AA (USA domestic) and QR (Europe and Asia) and I am loyal to them. I have become accustomed to : Flagship lounge in Miami (because of my QR status), Centurion in Miami (before my morning flights to HAV) or PHL (to connect to QR) . I have had no desire to use LCC or ULCC in the USA or Europe, even though recently a full flight from CDG to TLV on AF 320 felt like a low cost airline flight.
    I have to make an exception to Air Asia, which single handedly has united SE Asia flying every where. I buy the front seats, order a meal and pay for luggage even if I am carrying on my luggage, so get to board, seat comfortably, usually much less crowded. I dont mind flying Air Asia even though if the MH is comparable say 100 vs 150 dollars per segment, I would choose MH just to enjoy their premier lounge (courtesy AA EXP or QR Plat). Cant remember the last time I paid for a meal at any airport, and looking forward to my SQ flight from SFO to SIN next week.
    As someone said, loyalty is a two way process, Domestic upgrade I am scoring about 8/10 and Miami-Havana (42-45 min) 100% upgraded (nice to get out first in Havana)
    Nice article. Lucky has troves of information on his posts and it is unfair to compare Lucky to James as they cover two different spheres and styles are very different.
    Also remember, the greatest travel writers have always been London-England based! Chatwin, Naipaul, Lewis lived/live in the UK and Iyer was educated there.

  32. I, too, like the business model of Allegiant. I reside in the PIE (Florida) area. Most travelers fly to here, but I fly away from here. So, I benefit from the numerous non-stops they offer; at a decent price. I snagged a cyber-Monday fare last year, PIE-MKE-PIE, with travel in January, for $56 round trip. Granted, folks don’t normally leave Florida for Wisconsin, but I will and do. Besides, Allegiant supports military and veterans by offering free baggage (with reasonable limits). Even though flights are not usually daily, They are my #1 choice in domestic travel to most destinations.

  33. “For longhaul travel I’m all about comfort and I’ll take nonsensical routings to maximise the experience and try out new airlines or products.”

    Absolutely James! I do the very same. Well written. keep it up.

  34. Nice article James. I DO understand Direct and Non Stop I even know the difference between Tomato and Tom ate toe

  35. @Daniel M
    In Europe there are now hardly any direct flights which are not non-stop.
    I have been on three in my life, and two of those ended outside Europe.
    Most Europeans will have never been on one.
    This is partly due to higher population density (the lower density in Scandinavia is why there may be some there)
    Other factors are probably: better train network, competition from the LCCs, and possibly passenger indignation at being sold “direct” when it was not non-stop.
    So in British English (and European Globish) “direct” means “non-stop”.
    For similar trans-atlantic differences in meaning see “bill”, “pants”, “pavement” etc

    @James: As this site’s readership is probably mainly American, I suggest that consistent American usage is a good idea for articles here.

    @Paolo: I suspect that in Africa there are quite a few direct flights with stops?
    What is the terminology there?

  36. @James

    the locals are starting to show their colours! they are appalled about your Australian/English literacy. Now they want to americanize you! No more mates from now on, you are a dude now! Now more direct but be a non-stop! No more Tim Tam , from now in its Hersheys…eh no!..Tim Tam has to stay! the rest you can take over!

  37. @ Myles and others – I’m aware of the US vs UK English differences and it is fair that US readers call them out.

    As you would be aware one of the main reasons I was brought on the team was to provide an international perspective (especially UK and AUS) and cover topics that haven’t been covered before. That is precisely why I picked the Ryanair topic as my first official OMAAT post.

    Tiffany and I have discussed UK vs US English at length and we are still conflicted – I’m generally writing about topics that will appeal to UK readers so it’s unfair to them to write about their topics in US English. Equally, the vast majority of OMAAT readers are currently US based so I can understand their frustration in reading UK English even though the differences are subtle.

    There’s no easy solution for this as it is impossible to please everyone, but I will continue to discuss this with Ben and Tiffany.

  38. @ James

    Thank you mate! for that extensive comment. But regarding my are doing it great! you mentioned it is only subtlle differences..the brothers and sisters across the atlantic should not be so hard on you and do not take them so seriously..
    some of them still think the middle of the world is somewhere in Kansas! an having a relationship with their cousins is God given!..So have some emphathy and understanding for their shortcomings! As you have said, it is impossible to please every yankees, dixies, poms, aussies and the rest of the bunch..they are not just acquainted with the sensation in having other than @Lucky giving them the view outside the it is new territory for them as well..keep the good work and stick to your Aussie won’t kills us here!..well, for some..maybe..

  39. James, I think you’re a bit nuts for this routing but to each his own.

    YYC is AC’s smallest hub. It is WestJet’s (WS) largest (goes back and forth between YYC and YYZ). AC runs one, maybe two wide-bodies a day and those are usually old 763s. The rest are 737s or old Airbus planes. Unless you’re sitting in the J pods, the seats at not going to be much better and will have close to the same pitch as a 737. Connecting via YYZ adds potential of delays; you have to clear customs in YYZ and then go back into the domestic flight area. Fly non-stop and you clear in YYC very quickly. If you really hate the pitch, you can often upgrade to premium economy at check-in with WS for a longer flight.

    Then again, I fly J a fair bit and I usually pick the most direct (i.e. lowest duration) route because my time is important to me.

  40. I am PHL based. One thing that weighs heavily against me booking an LCC or ULCC is the gate location. Almost all of their flights are out of E or F. The Centurion lounge is between A-East and A-West, however. Although all of PHL is connected airside so that reaching E or F for your flight is possible it is not a pleasant experience (even if you take a tarmac bus). AA on the other hand flies almost exclusively out of the A and B gates and is very short walk from the Centurion lounge. Plus 75% of PHL flights are AA.

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